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New Study: The Correlation Between Substance Use & Suicide Attempts

October 7, 2022

7 min.

A new study finds a close relationship between substance use and suicidal ideation.

By: Adam Bean


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Table of Contents

In a 2022 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers posed the question: “Do female youths who attempt suicide have an increased risk of substance use disorders later in life?” The research team identified 122,234 females aged 8 to 19, and studied the group for the next three decades. 

To determine risk of developing a substance use disorder, researchers compared females with at least one suicide attempt before age 20 to females with no suicide attempts. After tracking the women for 31 years, the researchers concluded that there is a strong association between suicide attempt and risk of SUD. Other findings included:

  • About one in five females who attempted suicide eventually developed a substance use disorder within 31 years.
  • Females with one attempt were nearly six times more likely to develop SUD than females with no suicide attempts. 
  • Females with three or more attempts had more than 20 times the SUD risk as those with no attempts. 
  • Around two-thirds of females who attempted suicide developed a form of mental illness other than SUD. The most common was anxiety disorder. 
  • Risk of SUD onset was highest within five years after the attempt, but remained elevated for the entire 31-year followup period. 
  • The most common SUDs for those who attempted suicide were sedative or hynotic use disorder, hallucinogen use disorder, and cocaine use disorder. However, SUD risk was higher for all substances including alcohol, marijuana, opioids, and stimulants. 

What these findings may mean for you

The researchers made three important recommendations based on their findings: 

Get screened

For young people especially, it’s important to have periodic screenings for mental health conditions and suicide risk. This will help you know what you’re dealing with, what to look out for, and what action steps to take. 

Get follow-up therapy

Teens and young adults who are admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt usually receive emotional and psychological assessments, according to the researchers. But it’s a good idea to receive therapy following discharge as well. Be sure you talk to your parents about wanting to receive treatment. It’s always more effective when the whole family is involved. 

Get long-term support

At-risk young people need to consider ongoing psychotherapy and/or medication treatment after a suicide attempt. This can help protect you from developing mental health problems or exacerbating current ones later in life. That will also lower your risk of later substance use. 

Teenager with substance abuse problems contemplating suicide

6 ways to feel better and stronger–starting now

It’s especially important to examine suicide now because the CDC just released a report showing that nearly 48,000 Americans died by suicide last year, reversing a recent (and hopeful) downward trend in deaths. Even more urgently: Girls aged 10-14 had the highest spike in suicides of any segment of the population. 

Here are some smart ways to live a little easier and improve your mood day-to-day to protect yourself from suicidal thoughts. 

  1. Don’t let small minds dictate what you do
    Millions of adolescents and young adults in the U.S. need help for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, and far too many don’t seek treatment for it. Many times that’s because of the stigma around mental health. Don’t let that stop you from getting the care you need. Stigma shows other people’s ignorance; getting help shows your strength of character. 
  2. Keep a clear head
    It’s important to recognize that anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness can cloud your judgment. They can make things seem bleaker than they need to be. Which is why you may need a professional’s help to ground you in the present, and reframe your thoughts in a more positive way.  
  3. Get more active for your body and your mind
    You likely already know what regular exercise does for your physical self–increased endorphins, better muscle strength and tone, more energy, and so on–but it does just as much for your mental state and mood. For one, regular exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which are natural brain chemicals that can balance out stress and help manage pain. Exercise also boosts levels of serotonin, another brain chemical that can improve mood and sleep quality. 
  4. Write it down, get it out
    We’re willing to bet that a lot more of your friends “journal” than you realize. These kids know how fun it is and how clarifying it can be. Maybe best of all, keeping a journal is almost magical in its ability to get stuff out of your head so you stop obsessing about it. 
  5. Keep your family in the loop. Young people sometimes feel determined to figure things out on their own. That’s natural and understandable. But just remember that your family can be super helpful to have on your side, especially when you’re going through tough times. 
  6. Stay strong if you’re bullied–and let someone know about it. It can be tough being a teen or adult for all sorts of reasons. Anxiety around global warming, gun violence, and political upheaval? Check, check, and check. But being harassed about your gender identity or sexual orientation can be the hardest of all. Our advice: Stay confident in who you are, and let an adult you trust know what’s going on so they can help you figure out a solution. And remember, you’re not the problem here, the bully is. 

Do you need more support with
your mental health?

Charlie Health can help.

Protecting yourself from substance use disorder (SUD)

Back to the study about suicide attempts and risk of developing substance use disorder (SUD). Setting aside the suicide part of that equation, it’s important to talk about ways to stay away from SUD period. 

Proven strategies include:

Build your brain every day

From about age 13 into your mid 20s, your brain gets shaped and reshaped based on your experiences. Neuron connections that are used get stronger; connections that aren’t used get weaker. That’s why it is so important to challenge our young and developing brain as much as possible through intellectual, social, and physical activities–the whole gamut. And here’s the thing: Using drugs and alcohol at this age can actually blunt this brain development. It also increases your risk of developing SUD. 

Come up with a couplet mantra you like, and use it

Below are four that may work for you. Note: If a different one comes to mind that fits you better, try it for a while and see how it works.

  • Using drugs or alcohol won’t solve my problems; facing them head-on will.
  • Using drugs or alcohol won’t make me popular; besides, I have more important things to think about. 
  • Using drugs or alcohol won’t strengthen my mind or body; staying active and curious will. 
  • Going along with the crowd isn’t my thing; being true to myself definitely is.

Get in with the busy crowd

Young people tend to be more open-minded and impressionable than their elders, which is a wonderful trait. Make it work for you by making friends with people who are involved in healthy things that keep you excited each day. Things like a newspaper club, an intramural or varsity sport, theater group, a pottery or art class, or a local running club if you’re not into the school team. Oftentimes, kids doing these activities are too busy having fun and going after their goals to mess with substance use. 

Get used to saying “no thanks”

You can actually practice resisting peer pressure this way, and it works. Try it in the mirror at home. Soon it’ll become second nature, and you will be ready to do it without having to think about it. 

Become more comfortable in social situations in one easy step.

It’s called…asking questions! You learn a lot by being curious, but asking people about their lives is also a great way to start conversations and feel more relaxed along the way. Count on it: People like talking about themselves. That will also take some of the pressure off of you, and make it less likely you’ll want to drink or use in order to fit in. 

Virtual Mental Healthcare at Charlie Health

We know that it’s hard to navigate a substance use disorder, whether it’s your own or a loved one’s. It’s sometimes even harder to discuss suicidal ideation. At Charlie Health, we curate therapeutic processing groups for individuals struggling with serious mental health issues in order to connect them with the resources they need. We also integrate family and individual therapy into each client’s treament plan so that issues like substance use and suicidal ideation can be addressed at their roots. Contact us today to get started.  

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